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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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The Folding Way

Oct. 20, 2016

Origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, continues to shape our world in fields such as aerospace and architecture.

When US President Barack Obama visited the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima in May, he presented paper cranes he folded himself. They're said to express peace and hope.

One piece of origami in the shape of a rabbit was created after a computer calculated the several thousand folds it would require. Specialists in a range of fields are applying origami concepts.

What looks like a simple piece of fabric becomes a collapsible gown that has caught the attention of designers.

And in cosmic exploration, a "space yacht" uses an origami-inspired solar-powered sail. It applies origami's greatest attribute to fold a larger form into a compact shape.

People around the world are drawn to this old, yet so modern technique.

"The future of origami science is very exciting. There has been an explosion in interesting science and new concepts," says an aerospace engineer from Germany.

A skilled origami folder can create any kind of object, such as a dragon, an elephant, or even a baby stroller. The craft is now employed in the sciences and engineering.

An experimental satellite called OrigamiSat-1 is scheduled to launch in 2018. It's designed to expand based on traditional ways of folding.

Research on origami's possible aerospace uses began more than 40 years ago. Koryo Miura is a pioneer -- an aerospace engineer who came across origami as he was studying how to package satellites.

Miura says different folding methods can bring out a material's potential. Folded fabric easily expands to cover a large surface area. Folding in a way that provides even weight distribution adds strength.

"We could also think about how concepts of origami can give products added value," Miura says.

Origami has expanded to other fields. It's attracting increasing attention from architects. Organizers of an international science conference in Tokyo last month included an origami session.

One speaker at the event talked about the "ability for folding to be a transformative construct for us to create real devices, machines, things that can improve the lives of people."

Some studies apply origami concepts to construction materials. A sheet of metal is folded into a honeycomb structure. The material is strong and lightweight, and can be made at relatively low cost with reduced waste.

Tomohiro Tachi is a research associate at the University of Tokyo who is applying origami concepts to the development of new buildings. He is working on creating collapsible temporary-housing units and mobile auditoriums.

"These are structures that expand from a folded state and are stable when they're deployed. Each one is shaped like an arch, so when they're connected, they become like a single roof," Tachi says.

But materials used in real construction are often thick and cannot always be folded like paper. To allow for folding, thin, durable sheets must be used -- or methods developed to handle existing materials.

"When using real-life materials, we must think about such factors as the steps required to fold them and the eventual layout. Many factors must still be considered," Tachi says.

Tachi was particularly interested in a study by a US researcher. The presenter shows a thick, prototype material that has been folded. At first sight, it looks almost like a mechanical part. But then the origami principle becomes clear.

"To create folded objects with thickness, the parts must be divided into several panels. Each panel is then connected with thin plates that move like hinges, so the plates don't interfere with each other when they're folded," Tachi says. "This is a basic crane with added thickness."

As new applications emerge, specialists exchange ideas and consider new possibilities. Tachi and others are pushing the limits of origami as they aim to uncover its benefits.

"Origami is about taking a piece of square paper and folding it into something fully formed. It draws on important and interesting elements of geometry," Tachi says. "It's exciting from a scientific perspective -- when objects suddenly appear where there appeared previously to be none."


NHK World's science correspondent Tetsutaro Soe joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: It looks like origami is drawing increasing attention from architects. But tell us, when will it become a reality?

Soe: We have yet to see real buildings using origami techniques. But interest is definitely rising -- as we just saw in the video, that was the first-ever session on origami-in-architecture at an international conference. So origami buildings could one day become a reality -- if researchers can perfect folding techniques for thick materials. They'll also have to develop suitable materials that remain stable no matter how many times they're folded and unfolded. We could one day have "origami" emergency shelters, as we saw in the video. And we could also have large structures like retractable roofs at stadiums built on the same concept.

Shibuya: It's not hard to picture the uses for architecture, but what about other fields?

Soe: Well, at the other extreme, on a microscopic level, researchers are using origami concepts for cell-sized applications. Researchers at Hokkaido University are studying what they call "cell origami." They culture cells on plates that crease and fold. The cells' behavior of contracting into their nuclei folds the plate and the cells form into cubes. It's now possible to create cubes or soccer ball-like shapes with actual cells.

The work is going on at the same time as research into artificially creating human body parts using master cells -- like iPS or ES cells. But scientists have struggled to get the cells to grow into specific shapes like tissues and organs. The idea of origami cell technology is to let researchers pile up layers of cells to create 3D objects without the need for any external force, or fold the layers into cylindrical structures like blood vessels. So the origami technology holds huge promise, from small things to large things.